The shimmering heat of the outback wanes as the sun descends, transforming the land from quartz through opal to obsidian.
Bauhinia trees stand silhouetted, their leaves morphing from golden coins to chocolate drops before melting into the night. As the constellations arc overhead, an emu hunkers down. He wobbles his bulk over a nest of bark and sticks, ensuring all dozen eggs are enveloped under his warmth.
At two years old, this is his first nest, his first star-lit vigil. Fingers of cold pry amongst the saltbush, seeking to snatch away his species’ chance of continuation. The hours of darkness pass slowly, his body set rigid for a lonely ordeal. He dozes for mere minutes at a time, every rodent scratch and owl hoot a wake-up call.
Dawn signals an end to the nocturnal watch as bats take roost, their claws securing bark toeholds and wings wrapped to exclude the day. The emu periscopes his neck to survey the surrounding bush. Light adds colour and shadows to the flatness of night, providing depth and perspective to flaking bark and crumbling termite mounds. Dry grasses bow their seed-laden stalks in the rising wind, paying homage to the river that dwindles over an ochre rock-bed, its life-giving waters draining away with the season. Honeyeaters and finches fluff their feathers and prepare to forage, partners grooming each other whilst chirruping over their ablutions. A hawk glides on unseen currents against the cloudless sky.
The giant bird’s grey plumage camouflages his presence amongst a tangle of dead vegetation. Only the reflection from his eyes gives away the nest’s location. A movement behind an acacia bush attracts the emu’s attention. He freezes and stares. He waits. The bushes rustle as a body emerges, feathers like his own, long legs raised and placed with precision. The female emu strides towards his hiding place with confidence, remembering where she laid her eggs.
The newly-matured emu has much to learn. The older female he joined with had led the way until a couple of weeks ago. She paired with him soon after he left his father and found a territory of his own. At that time his siblings had explored in different directions and he hadn’t encountered any males. A young female had also tried to join him, but his new mate chased her away. Except for that one occasion, they had seen no others of their species. The couple had wandered the few kilometres between the river and the base of the bluff, mirroring each other’s moves and discovering the layout of their terrain. Spending the days foraging, he had gained reserves of fat to see him through the months ahead—essential to his survival now that he had started to sit and could no longer eat. When she departed, he had commenced his incubation role.
The male emu watches the antics of his former partner, confused. Why had she come back? She flounces nearer, ruffling her wings and shaking her wide rump. An escort of butterflies dances attendance while a willy-wagtail watches the fluttering insects from a nearby branch. As the male tries to discern the reason for her return, the female inflates her neck sack and emits a boom. Pacing a few metres in front of the nest, she scratches the dirt with her clawed toes, bobbing her head. Despite the mimicry, the male doesn’t believe she is calling his attention to food. He grunts in response but remains crouched in position.
Her display becomes more pronounced. He recalls the signals from before when she had changed from gorging food to mutual preening—she is ready to mate. Torn between his need to service her and guard the eggs, he straightens to his two-metre height. The morning breeze has stilled with the rising sun. Dust motes hang in the air. Even the chattering leaves seem to have paused as if waiting to see what he will do.
Hovering over the nest, he scans the area for possible threats. Seeing none, he takes one step, then another, towards the flirting female. She leads him away without looking back. Lengthening his stride, the male hastens after her, the urge of nature driving away any misgivings about the safety of his nest. He realises she must have been unable to find another male for her second clutch of eggs, meaning he’ll have a double batch to hatch. The thought doesn’t upset him; more eggs increase his chance of passing on his genes.
The alarm cry of the willy-wagtail stops the male. Craning his neck to peer back at his nest, the emu spies a goanna stretching its jaws around one of the eggs.
His protective instincts override those of his desire to mate. Spinning into a run, he races back to defend his brood, neck stretched ready to strike.
The goanna has also been warned by the flycatcher and swaggers off through the sedges, gulping down the last of its meal.
The emu cleans up the nest with his wedged beak, flicking out broken shell and removing soiled grasses soaked in albumen. He turns the remaining eleven eggs and nudges them closer together. Settling his body back in place, he resumes his vigil. He won’t be distracted again; the female will have to find another mate.
Days pass and the emu sits, sucking dew from the stems he can reach from his sheltering crouch. Other than to turn the eggs at regular intervals, he remains still. Minutes turn into hours as he dozes on and off, absorbing the sounds around him as the world strums its rhythms. Brahman bulls bassoon their challenges across distant plains. Breezes tambourine dry leaves against brittle stems as seed pods timpani to the baked ground. Wallabies drum by at dawn and dusk on their way between grazing and water. At midday, the bush harmonies quieten as scorching rays drive the emu’s fellow creatures to doze in the shade. Beneath him the eggs remain a constant temperature, the heat unable to penetrate his blanket of feathers, as his body eats into its fat stores.
An unknown aroma catches his nostrils. This is no lumbering Brahman or hopping kangaroo, nor does he sense a creeping dingo or swaggering reptile. Primaeval forces drive him to peer out from where he hides. A shout precedes vibrations through the ground. Sticks beat a tattoo against a hollow log. Stones rain around his head. Bewildered, he hunkers lower to blend into the spinifex hummocks. The assault continues. A rock glances off his back. Fearing for his life, he abandons his clutch and races away, toes splayed and thighs stretched.
Away from the onslaught, the emu stops and swivels his neck to check on his nest. He sees a boy dash in and grab an egg—the emu is not to know that carved eggs sell well. As the boy reaches for another, the emu braces himself to fight the enemy. Covering the ground with jerking steps, legs ready to slash, he hurries back to his charges. The boy bolts, hugging the precious turtle-green shell to his chest.
Flustered, the emu rearranges the ten eggs, rolling those on the periphery to the centre. He tidies the sticks and lowers himself back into position. With racing heart, he listens and tastes the air. The only sound comes from the Apostle birds squabbling over specks in the dust. Ants busy themselves lugging vegetable matter along the well-worn trails to their mounds, pausing to rub each other’s legs in communication. Soldiers defend the workers, attacking intruders with raised pincers. Marsupials rustle through the leaf and bark litter seeking seeds as silent reptiles seek them. The emu’s tension dissipates like an unwinding python, poised to recoil at any threat.
Weeks pass as the emu’s dehydrated body withers inside its thick skin. Hunger twists his gut—even the stones and other ingested objects to grind food have passed through, leaving him hollow and weak. Muscles cramp as he rises on stiff limbs to turn the eggs. A noise distracts him from the discomfort. He cocks his head to ascertain the source.
From inside their cases, his offspring call to him and peck. Tap tap. A crack appears in the centre egg, snaking a path across the brittle shell. A beak protrudes. Bog-eyes blink, exposed to daylight for the first time. Wrinkled skin stretches and dries as bare wings poke and flap, testing their muscles and driving circulation. Spindly legs stagger as the newly-hatched chick flounders in its effort to walk.
The father hunkers lower and spreads his wings wide, shielding his freshly emerged offspring from the glare and heat of the sun. Hovering, he feels the eggs move beneath him as, one by one, the chicks emerge. As the cool of the evening breathes fresh life into his tired body, he stirs and rises above his new family, proud of his success.
Nine bundles of down peck at their bedding and broken shells, already feeding on the ants that parade through the crumbled bundles of twigs. One egg lays intact at the edge of the nest. No sounds reverberate through the thick crust. The father pokes it with his beak, hoping to prompt a response. Nothing—the core is rotten. He tumbles the lifeless shell away and clears the debris from those that hatched. Stepping away from his offspring, he stretches to peck at a litter of seeds previously out of reach, keen to satisfy his hunger. His thirst will have to wait until the chicks are older.
Within a few days, the fawn and cream stripes of the young birds have fully emerged, providing camouflage amongst the scrub. They are keen to explore beyond the boundaries of the nest. One male, bolder than the rest, heads into a thicket. A female dawdles behind. Their father hustles them into a mob, keeping them close to him as they broaden their horizons. Green shoots, grass seeds and insects fall prey to their inquisitive probing. As their stamina builds, the father allows them to wander further each day, calling them back to the protection of his wings when danger threatens.
The wind builds, rattling vegetation and chasing tumble-weed across the sands. The brittle limbs of a snappy gum thrash as an unseasonal storm erupts, clouds muscling each other across the thickening sky. The emu cries a warning and hastens back to the nest. The family rush beneath a barren eucalypt as a deafening crack echoes from the rocks. A branch crashes down, trapping a small body. Crushed.
Eight flustered bundles race after their father, oblivious of their lost sibling. As they reach his protection and huddle beneath umbrella wings, cold rain spits and bounces on the hot dust, raising the smell of damp earth and washed leaves. The adult emu nestles his head into his back and blinks against the onslaught. Rivulets flow around his haven, cleansing the ground of droppings and old feathers. He snatches at a grub spinning by on a leaf, never one to miss an opportunity for a feed.
As fast as it arrived, the storm moves on. Waters drain away as the corellas resume their screeching in the tree-tops. Shaking droplets from his plumage, the emu stretches and scans the refreshed landscape. A bedraggled form rests in a shallow pool, drowned. He scratches the skeletal corpse away from the nest, wary of predators looking for an easy meal. Once satisfied that the threat is dealt with, he leads his seven chicks to resume feeding.
The young emus grow rapidly, lengthening their legs, bulking out their skin, their soft down transforming to smoky plumes. Content in their daily routine, they forage and sleep, wander and browse. Growing bolder, one youngster ignores his father’s calls, intent on the dried berries under a thorn bush; sneaking the rich fruit out from under the prickles requires all his attention. A dark shadow cools his back. Before learning the meaning of the threat, the chick is snatched in talons and raised high into the sky. The fledgling emu flies against nature’s intent, a meal for the wedge-tailed-eagle’s own young.
Six remaining emus watch with their father from under his shelter. He stretches to protect them all, their bulk too much for the spread of his wings. Chiselled heads on spindly necks waft from his sides like the tentacles of an anemone drifting with the waves. As the bird of prey departs, the emu lessens his hold. The youngsters resume their feeding, the lesson to heed their father strengthened, their stolen sibling forgotten.
When the brood are old enough to browse as far as the river, the emu leads them to drink, careful to check for other animals on the same quest. Satisfied the way is clear, he kneels down, legs hinged beneath him on the rock ledge. Taking his time, he guzzles his fill. The young emus emulate their parent, splashing their beaks in the ripples. A female, furthest away, fails to notice a change of scent in the air. The others rise and run as their father sounds the alarm; she doesn’t respond. Unable to intervene and protect those beneath him at the same time, he frets as his daughter is lifted in slobbering jaws. Stamping from foot to foot, he bobs his head in agitation as the dingo lopes away, the female chick hanging limp from the wild dog’s grin—her life ended.
With only five young to tend, the adult emu has more time to fend for himself. His flesh fills out as he recovers from his early parenting duties. Vigour returns to his stride. He rests through the warmer nights filled with the sounds of sawing crickets. Cicadas resonate during the day, expanding their forms and shedding their exoskeletons, leaving shadows of their former lives on tree trunks as they emerge and grow. The six-month-old emus flourish, taking on the appearance of their father and almost as tall. As they mimic his actions, he parades the parched landscape in the constant search for nourishment.
Food is running low and this area has proven dangers. He knows the open grasslands where the cattle graze provide opportunity for seed. With his offspring now strong enough for the journey, he decides to trek away from the scrub and bluffs. Far from the river into open country, he leaves behind the rugged escarpments that bisect the landscape, ancient limestone crags jutting through weathered sandstone caps. As the hills shrink, boulders lay scattered where aeons of weather have failed to erode them into silt.
Encountering a fence that stretches beyond his sight, the emu lifts a powerful leg and strikes at the obstruction. Slashing with clawed toes, he rips the wires down. The high tensile strands spring apart, coiling back on themselves, catching a young emu around his neck. The more he struggles, the tighter the barbs grasp the youngster’s flesh. The adult emu waits, unable to help, until his son’s torment ceases. The tangle of feathers and wires no longer move. It is time to go on.
The four survivors scramble after their father, hungry and tired. The heat creates mirages of inland seas across the blowing sands. Pebbled anthills lay dormant as even the hardy insects shelter from noontime perils. With water a distant memory, the emus march on. Strung out in a line, the smallest falls back. The adult emu stops and encourages her on, signalling the need to continue with snaking neck and bobbing head. Leading his family, he continues across the rugged terrain, stepping around rocks and over desiccated timber.
As the afternoon drags by, the frail female fails to catch up when summoned, weakened by the journey. Her dull eyes close as she nestles to the ground. Her father hurries back to chide her with held-out wings and nudging beak. She rises, dragging her toes in the dirt until the effort becomes too great. Sickness shivers through her body. Despite the desire to seek safety under her father’s feathers, she sags back into the dust like a jellyfish stranded on a beach at low tide. She sighs her last breath. Her parent can no longer rouse her.
Abandoning her body to scavengers, the family moves on. The adult emu is mindful of the need to seek safety before dark. Despite his family trailing behind, he hurries on to encounter the black territory that radiates heat. Void of vegetation and flat as a salt lake, the ribbon stretches to the indistinct horizon. The adult emu stands in the middle of the strip, calling for his young to join him. The smell of bitumen causes him concern. As soon as the trio commence the crossing, he turns and strides to the far side, tail feathers bobbing in his haste.
His eyes focus on another fence. Instead of breaching this barrier, he follows the gully to a gap he remembers. The three youngsters notice him change direction and turn at the same time, one not yet clear of the road. Trotting along the centre line to keep up with those on the verge, the young emu fails to hear the vehicle coming from behind until the last moment. In confusion, he rushes back to the other side, away from his intended direction. His father panics as the engine drowns all other sound, the wind of its passing like a soul tearing from the destroyed body under the wheels of the road train.
Looking at the mangled remnants, the adult emu doesn’t understand the predator that has stolen another of his young. He turns away, knowing there is nothing he can do to revive the remains. He checks the survivors at the roadside waiting for his guidance. They are thirsty and exhausted. He must find water, shelter and feed.
Soon the wet season will flood the parched soils, invigorating mulga and coolibah. Tortoises and frogs will make their annual appearance, revelling in the mud and ooze. Shattered rainbows of flowers will glow like stained glass across the desert. Bustards will gorge on fattened skinks and flycatchers will flit from moth to moth.
Gathering his two youngsters to his side, the male emu struts on. This strong duo will have a greater chance of survival than a larger brood. The father hopes he will see them grow to become independent and find their own territories. Maybe after that he’ll pair with another female and commence his parenting role again.